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'Cholismo': How Diego Simeone Helped Transform Atlético’s Fans Into Winners

When he arrived, Atlético were four points above the relegation zone; now they're one of the most feared sides in Europe. Diego Simeone has made a hopeless club believe again.

by Rubén Uría
May 25 2016, 2:08pm

PA Images

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Spain.

Relegated to second tier of Spanish football after a judicial intervention, Atlético Madrid began the 21st century with more lows than highs. The victims of negligent management and saddled with enormous debt, Spain's third-largest club stumbled through an identity crisis against a backdrop of terrible results.

Considered among the title favourites each summer, by December all hope seemed lost for Atlético. That was until Diego "El Cholo" Simeone arrived. The Argentine inherited the unsuccessful lot and almost magically transformed them into a winning team.

But of course, it was not magic. Simeone's success is down to relentless hard work.

Photo: Albert Gea/Reuters

When he arrived, Atlético were four points above the La Liga relegation zone and had just lost to a second-tier side in the Copa del Rey. Their supporters had abandoned all hope, resigning themselves to cheering for a mediocre team. Atlético were clearly marked as born losers. It was so culturally entrenched that television adverts showed kids asking: "Dad, why do we still support Atlético?"

In spite of their poor performances, they were still considered endearing. Thanks to El Cholo's leadership, however, their fortunes have changed dramatically. Almost recklessly, Simeone took control of a sinking ship, gained the respect of the players, raised their self-esteem and returned the club to its former glory, focusing on direct, intense football, with a solid defence and electric counterattacks.

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Game after game, and with a great deal of effort, Atlético continued to rise to the challenge and climb the mountain. Under the direction of El Cholo, the club's new message seemed to connect with their supporters: success through a combination of strong leadership, loyal players, and the Vicente Calderón stadium's adoring public.

El Cholo slowly began to change the mindset of the colchoneros – literally, 'mattressers', as Atlético supporters are known – and soon the entire fan base recovered their faith in the club. All that was needed was ceaseless hard work and an unbreakable belief that things could improve.

Photo: Mariscal/EPA

With the people's help, Simeone convinced a depressed team that they could be champions, and in the meantime reminded the fans that Atlético wasn't just a club – it could also be an attitude, an act of faith, a religion. The result of this process was the philosophy that currently guides them. It is called Cholismo.

Throughout Atlético's history, the team's red and white supporters have shown that it is more a cause than a club. That's something they had forgotten, something Simeone came to remind them of.

He was well versed in their history and made it his personal mission to restore the team to its previous status. He didn't doubt the kind of tactics they should employ. It goes without saying that, while Atlético have had and continue to possess great players, they have never been known for an aesthetically pleasing game.

The club continues to grow through consistent effort, perseverance and a united front under strong leadership. They have a history of always giving their best: that's how they've won, how they've lost, and how they've survived.

Barça's personal stamp on the game has always been long spells of possession. In contrast, Atlético's identifiable tactics are a rock-solid defence and players who are solely intent on running, fighting and kicking hard, ready for their signature counters. Their approach is certainly different: it may not be as beautiful as other methods, but it's incredibly effective. There isn't a football fan out there who hasn't learnt something from the tactics Atlético employ.

Photo: Andrea Comas/Reuters

The courage they retain to fight every battle, and their capacity to withstand every punishment shows that it is possible for this club to prevail in even the worst situations. They are a hard team, football guerrillas. Match after match, the Cholismo phenomena has continued to spread. The world has heard of Simeone's Atlético Madrid. While their game doesn't make fans fall in love with them, it does instill fear in the hearts of their opponents.

The boss is not a man known for hesitation. He couldn't care less if people like him or not; his only aim is to win and he'll play hard to do so. In only three years Simeone has reached two Champions League finals; neither Guardiola's Bayern Munich nor Luis Enrique's Barcelona have been able to stop him. Atlético have collected five trophies: La Liga, the Europa League, and the Copa del Rey, as well as European and Spanish Supercups. That works out to a title per year.

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El Cholo is a strategist, a psychologist, and an excellent motivational speaker. He has demonstrated what work ethic really means. He's shown himself capable of liberating a team known only for poor performances, renewed supporters´ faith when all that awaited them at the office on Monday morning was ritual humiliation. He's restored a catastrophic club to its past glory.

Prior to Simeone's arrival, Atlético spent a gruelling 14 years habitually losing to Real Madrid. Today they stand as equals. Since their Champions League Final in Lisbon two years ago, they have only lost once to their intra-city rivals. Now they will face them again in European football's greatest game.

Photo: Susana Vera

Players no longer use Atlético as a platform to kick-start their careers and move on to something better; they simply don't want to leave. If la Grande Inter had Helenio Herrera, Barça had Johan Cruyff and Nottingham Forest had Brian Clough, then Atlético have Simeone. As long as he is there, the best players will want to work for him – and that is a first.

It is likely that Atlético will sign a few big names in the coming years; it would certainly be difficult to find a better employer than Simeone. He loves the team he trains, and out of that love he devotes body and soul to the growth of the club. You can't buy that.

From improvisation to planning, from losses to victories, from nothing to everything, Simeone is the starting point of all things for Atlético, and he undoubtedly remains the most inventive manager in the club's history. His voice is one of authority to the players, club and fans. He has restored their pride, revived their spirit, and ensured that together they are different from the rest.

Photo: Marcelo del Pozo/Reuters

Initially, he convinced the team, club and supporters that in order to be successful they had to fight like the underdogs they were; he then convinced them that having heart could rival money. Finally, his invitation to join him in thinking big, through hard work and faith, resulted in the success we see today.

Since his arrival, the supporters have learned a new mantra: never stop believing.

Translated into English by Andreu Navarro Lopez and Ross Skilbeck